By Sairah Masud
A ‘radical overhaul’ is needed to stop the disproportionate numbers of black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) offenders in the criminal justice system, a review by Labour MP David Lammy said.
His 18-month survey of the treatment and outcome of minorities in the justice system, published in the Lammy Review last Friday (8), also called for more transparency in the judicial process and increased diversity among judges and magistrates.
Lammy suggested that the economic impact of ethnic disproportionality in the criminal justice system costs the taxpayer at least £309 million each year.
The MP for Tottenham in north London said: “My review clearly shows BAME individuals still face bias in parts of the justice system. It is only through delivering fairness, rebuilding trust and sharing responsibility that we will build the equal and just society so often spoken about.”
Among his findings were that the BAME proportion of young people offending for the first time rose from 11 per cent in 2006 to 19 per cent a decade later.
Former Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West, Nazir Afzal, told Eastern Eye the findings did not come as a surprise. He told Eastern Eye: “Such disproportionality suggests we need to tackle the root causes; providing young people with the resources to achieve their ambitions and to dissuade them from joining gangs and viewing crime as an easy option.”
“We don’t want to wait until they’ve offended – we work with children and explain their responsibilities as citizens but also provide them with whatever support they need.”
Another finding identified by Lammy was that more than 50 per cent of Asian women are more likely to enter a ‘not guilty’ plea in court than their white counterparts which, the MP argued, is due to an inherent ‘trust deficit’ between BAME individuals and the justice system, where there is more confidence in the fairness of juries than the magistrate’s court.
“Many BAME defendants simply do not believe that the justice system will deliver less punitive treatments if they plead guilty,” he said.
His survey also showed that for every 100 white women handed custodial sentences at crown courts for drug offences, 227 black women were sentenced to custody.
Such differential treatment has led many to voice their disconcertment and urge the government to employ an active role in addressing such bias.
Katharine Sacks-Jones, Director of Agenda, an organisation that campaigns for women’s rights, said: “This group of women are discriminated against because of both their gender and race and for too long their experiences have been ignored. We hope that now, their voices will finally be heard.”
“Sexism, racism and unconscious bias should have no part in the criminal justice system and it must stop. The government must take urgent action to ensure fairness throughout the process so that BAME women do not continue to face a double disadvantage.”
Such assertions have led to the proposal of all sentencing remarks being published to increase scrutiny of decision-making and make justice more transparent for victims, witnesses and offenders.
Based on an initiative already implemented in New Zealand, Lammy suggested the introduction of ‘Local Justice Panels’ for first-time offenders that invite key figures in the young person’s life to contribute to hearings, as well as holding local services to account for the child’s rehabilitation.
“Unless we see fundamental reform, these young people will become the next generation of adult offenders, stuck in a cycle of crime, unemployment and welfare”, Lammy added.
He also called for a US-style ‘sealing’ of criminal records where the judge, based on factors such as time elapsed since the offence and evidence of rehabilitation, decides whether to seal an offender’s record. Agreeing to do so would mean employers are unable to access the individual’s criminal record.
Afzal told Eastern Eye: “There’s an established saying in British law that ‘ignorance is no defence’ however with young people, one thing we don’t want to do is criminalise them for life.”
“We should be endeavouring to try and divert them from the justice system by looking at what issues need addressing such as mental health and addiction and provide them with mentors if they lack ambition or aspiration. All those things require resources which have to be available to enable this to happen.”
Mark Blake, from the Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG), has echoed Afzal’s views stating that more ‘nuances’ are needed within the current system.
“Ex-offenders I speak to talk about doing their sentence and coming out and doing another sentence (outside of prison) because of the criminal reports issue. The system at the moment is stopping people from securing jobs where there shouldn’t be any issues.”
Eliminating the current regime, that is accused of ‘trapping offenders in their past’, would mean that ex-offenders who no longer pose a risk to society are given a chance to start afresh.
As the evidence points out that black children are twice as likely to grow up in a lone-parent family and BAME boys are more likely to be permanently excluded from school than white boys, all of which Lammy has argued contribute to their over-representation in the justice system.
In light of such assertions, the MP has highlighted the role of the community in assuming a greater role in addressing such issues.
“(Such issues) begin long before a guilty plea, court appearance or prison sentence. Communities must take greater responsibility for the care and development of their people â€“ failing to do so only damages society as a whole.”
Nathan Dick from Clinks, a criminal justice policy think-tank, told Eastern Eye: “A localised, multi-agency approach is the only sensible way forward. People who are in the justice system often need help to overcome multiple issues such as addiction, homelessness, mental health, debt, poor family relations and much more“ no one agency can address all of these issues.”
“We need local community organisations and groups to make sure that people from BAME communities have the support that they need.”
Justice secretary and Lord Chancellor David Lidington said: “Asian people and other ethnic minorities should not face discrimination in the criminal justice system, or anywhere else.”
“I was struck by the report’s finding that large numbers of people from ethnic minority communities lack confidence in the criminal justice system. No Government or politician of any political persuasion can be happy with that state of affairs.”
“We will always seek to drive out discrimination wherever it exists. That is why the prime minister ordered the unprecedented collection of data allowing the clearest understanding to date of how someone’s ethnicity can impact their day to day life, which will be published next month.”